I knew I was in trouble the minute that I had to define “faith.” I knew the definition I had learned when I was 11 watching Miracle on 34th Street, “Faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to,” but somehow I knew that wouldn’t fly as it pertained to the Catholic Church.
Two days ago my latest book, The Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism was published and as I celebrate this accomplishment, I have had several people ask me some of my thoughts on the writing of it now that some time has passed. As I have said before – and will repeat time and time again – the fact that I was even asked to do this is proof positive that God has a sense of humor. After all, I was the one with all the questions…who was I to start offering answers?
One of the things that surprised me the most in writing this book was how little I felt I DID know…even the definitions that I had memorized fell apart under scrutiny leading me to wonder more that I care to admit if some of the things I professed to believe were nothing more than a game with words. Think I am kidding? Try defining “sacrament.” Go ahead…I’ll wait…
Chances are, you learned some variation of the same definition that I did: “A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of inner grace.” Wonderful, but what does it mean and how do you explain it to someone brand new to the Church if you aren’t even sure you understand it yourself? I don’t mind telling you that I spent hours trying to pick that one apart until I felt like a dog chasing its own tail and finally called a former religion teacher to try and get her to explain it to me in plain and simple terms. “If you know of a way to do that, you tell me!” She retorted. (Somehow I wasn’t comforted.)
We eventually figured it out, and the explanation is in the book, but it wasn’t easy. Neither was writing a brief history of God. Although He has quite an impressive list of accomplishments to his credit, God’s actual biography is more than a little hard to track down. Don’t even get me started on that kid of His. FOUR men tried to put the life and works of Jesus in to writing and could only agree on two things: that He was baptized by John the Baptist and was ultimately crucified by Pontius Pilate. (Yes, there are other similarities within the Gospels but I am focusing on what all four attest to.) As for the Holy Spirit…well, I admitted that this part is the hardest to grasp and offered a less-than-helpful anecdote involving St. Patrick and the shamrock. Beyond that, you’re on your own.
Heaven, Hell and all that might be in between were another fun section I battled with. While I understand the concept of Purgatory, I am one of those weird Catholics that is not sure she believes in it. (But I’ll save that saga for another post.) As for the process by which someone enters these various locations…there seem to be a lot of loopholes. I was told as a child that good people, of course, go to Heaven while bad people went to Hell. It seemed pretty cut and dry to me early on but then the questions started. Why do you have to be Baptized to go to Heaven? What if you were a baby who just died suddenly? Well of course God would look out for them. What about a mentally disturbed person who killed someone but didn’t go to confession? Would God have mercy on them? What about all of the countless stupid-but-not-too-awful things I did throughout my life? Did reconciliation really wipe those away or am I going to have to answer to a highlight reel of all my shortcomings on Judgement Day? What about Hitler? What happened to him? (This is the go-to bad guy most of us assume didn’t make the cut for Heaven and who we assume we have a better chance than for admittance.)
My point is that writing this book was HARD! Harder than anything I have ever done in my whole life. Like it or not I was forced to confront all of my cynicism, make peace with it and find a way to take everything I didn’t understand and couldn’t explain and….somehow find a way.
There were subjects I wanted to tackle, like saints and Mary, for example. I never understood what is so hard to grasp about all of that, but it is a sticking spot for some people and I really wanted to try and make sense of it all. After all, my father was Baptist, and while I am sure that he had his reservations about it, he never told me that I was wrong or that I was worshipping false idols. I really tried to step out of my comfort zone on that chapter and look at the whole thing from another point of view. Maybe if I wasn’t Catholic it would look weird to see a guy who was alive only a decade ago canonized on live TV and revered by billions of people as if he were something other than human.
But there were also subjects I wanted to avoid like the plague…one in particular that I kept successfully dodging until I could not sidestep it any longer. For weeks I felt like a slime ball for not facing it head on and at one point I wondered if I might take the cowards way out and eliminate it completely. I don’t mind telling you, if I had…it would have been my biggest regret. However, one morning last spring the perfect opportunity presented itself and thanks to one of the finest documentaries I have ever seen, God showed me how I could be “Both” true to the Church, “And” true to all that I believed in.
That’s the only hint you are getting…read the book and you’ll figure it out.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Catholicism is available wherever books are sold including: